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What happened to Wunderlist? Back in 2011, a Berlin company named 6Wunderkinder released the first version of a to-do list iOS app called Wunderlist based on their desktop application by the same name. Over the next few years the company focused mainly on the mobile version, adding features and tweaking the UI. By the end of 2014 the app had over 10 million users. Six months later, in June of 2015, Microsoft acquired 6Wunderkinder (and Wunderlist) at a price between 100 and 200 million dollars.

The typical Our Incredible Journey post followed. From founder and CEO Christian Reber via (an archived version of) the Wunderlist blog:

Joining Microsoft gives us access to a massive wealth of expertise, technology and people that a small company like us could only dream of amassing on its own.

So what will change for you? Nothing right now. Our team in Berlin will continue to build and deliver you Wunderlist, Wunderlist Pro and Wunderlist for Business across all platforms–iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Mac, Android, Windows Phone, Windows and the Web. I will continue to lead the team and product strategy, because that’s what I love the most–building great products that help individuals and businesses get stuff done in the simplest and most intuitive way possible.

About two years later in April of 2017 Microsoft unveiled a new product developed by the acquired Wunderlist team: Microsoft To-Do. From the announcement:

In the coming months, we’ll bring more of the favorite elements of Wunderlist into the Microsoft To-Do experience, adding features such as list sharing, apps for Mac, iPad and Android tablet, as well as additional integrations with other Microsoft services. Once we are confident that we have incorporated the best of Wunderlist into Microsoft To-Do, we will retire Wunderlist. While the name and icon may change, the team that brought you Wunderlist continues on.

Five months later Reber left Microsoft. In 2018 he revealed via Twitter that slow integration of Wunderlist features in Microsoft To-Do was the result of technical challenges. Wunderlist was built on AWS and porting features to Microsoft’s cloud (Azure) after the acquisition had proven challenging. After a UI redesign in 2019 that brought Microsoft To-Do’s appearance closer to the original Wunderlist design, Microsoft announced the final shutdown date for Wunderlist:

When we first announced Microsoft To Do, we also announced that Wunderlist would eventually retire. We planned this so we could concentrate on building a more integrated and secure app that helps you get stuff done in a smarter way.

It’s time to let you know that on May 6th, 2020, we plan to shut down Wunderlist.

Why are we doing this now? We’ve stopped releasing new features and big updates to Wunderlist, so as the app ages it’s become more difficult to maintain. As technology continues to advance, we can’t guarantee that Wunderlist will continue to work as it should, or as we’d like it to. With all our latest updates, we’re confident in To Do being the best alternative for Wunderlist now and so we believe it’s the right time to make the next move. Now, we want to dedicate all our time to growing that cross-suite experience that transforms how you achieve your goals and dreams.

The announcement also contained this absolutely bizarre video about a family of gelatinous blobs and their experience of moving to a new city. I guess it’s a metaphor somehow? Microsoft’s creative team was clearly dropping acid but I couldn’t find a single news article that mentioned the video. Ridiculous! Anyway, Wunderlist holdouts were encouraged to migrate to Microsoft To-Do where all their data could be imported. The end!

This is not a particularly interesting story by itself. A tech giant acquires a niche-but-popular small tech company, puts the team to work on a project to somehow integrate the acquired projects into its product ecosystem, fumbles around for a few years, the original founder leaves, users complain the whole time, and at the end there’s a new product that’s a little worse than whatever was originally acquired (but connected to the rest of the tech giant’s email/calendar/file storage services). Invariably the acquisition process also kills whatever unique flavor or vibe the original product had, as seems to be the case with Wunderlist. If you’ve seen this happen once you’ve seen it a hundred times.

“Boo!” you immediately say. “Look at this giant company using their vast resources to consolidate the to-do list app market and suck users unwillingly into their productivity tool gravity well! Every beautiful indie software application I use is inevitably destroyed by this ravenous monolith!”

Now, disclosure, I work at a giant company with vast resources (or a ‘ravenous monolith’, depending on your point of view) but I submit to you that Wunderlist’s fate was sealed years before the acquisition. Crunchbase indicates that by 2013 Wunderlist had accrued some $35M in funding from various venture capitalists including institutional heavyweight Sequoia Capital and had between 100 and 250 employees. That is not a company that can simply trundle along providing a freemium productivity app to its adoring users. Traditional VCs are looking for a substantial return on their investment and will require a strategy that provides at least a chance of such a return.

I don’t know what Wunderlist’s revenues were at the time of these investments but it doesn’t really matter. The investments (and acquisition) are based on the maximum theoretical value that can be extracted from the company and that maximum value can only be extracted by someone like Microsoft. Pulling Wunderlist’s users (or even a fraction of them) into the Microsoft ecosystem creates more value for Microsoft than all the ‘Wunderlist Pro’ subscription fees they will ever pay.

We don’t have public numbers to back that assertion up but even without them I think the argument is convincing. If it was just about the product Microsoft could easily clone Wunderlist for less than the nine-figure sticker price. In fact, between Outlook, OneNote, and other utilities I’d bet there were already five or six to-do list applications floating around the Microsoft catalog. This isn’t to say that Wunderlist’s destiny was always certain, just that they intentionally pursued a business model (via funding and hiring) that was optimized for an acquisition[0].

In fact, the Wunderlist case is almost the purest possible form of this phenomenon. To-do lists are the Hello World of applications, often used in demo pages because they are a minimal example of the types of interactions any application framework must support. There is an entire website dedicated to comparing web frameworks this way. Because the underlying product is such a commodity there’s little to distract from the industry dynamics that are at work here[1].

So what about after the acquisition? It took Microsoft two years to release their sanitized clone app and another three years to turn down the original Wunderlist app, disappointing users the entire way. The internal dynamics of a giant software company are a little too complicated to break down here but suffice it to say that the system that produces a strategic acquisition is separate from the system that deals with the resulting engineering reality.

Also, Microsoft has never had to sink or swim based on how much consumers loved its to-do list offering. That results in a worse product not because of apathy, but because it allows other incentives (performance reviews, internal technology development, plain old politics) to compete with product excellence. This is only underscored by the fact that the same team that built Wunderlist built Microsoft To-Do, just as part of different systems.

Editor’s Note: Inspiration for this section comes from reader Michael P. of Bethesda, MD.


Basecamp is a company that sells a project management SaaS. Founded in 1999 by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (aka DHH), Basecamp released its flagship product in 2004. Although its employee count is only in double digits, Basecamp and its founders project an outsized influence on the programming and software business community. DHH is the creator of the popular Ruby on Rails web framework and Basecamp has published a series of influential books on work culture.

Back in April, Basecamp (then 57 employees strong) experienced a kerfuffle on its internal messaging boards. For some years a few employees had kept a list of funny sounding customer names they came across. The existence of the list was known widely but never directly addressed. Lengthy discussion of the list and the issues it represented on the company’s internal Basecamp account grew tense when one employee pressed the conversation after DHH attempted to conclude it.

The first public fallout of this came a few weeks later when founder Jason Fried announced a set of internal policy changes on the Basecamp blog, the first of which was:

No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account. Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens. People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can’t happen where the work happens anymore.

The five other items included the elimination of ‘360 reviews’ and the replacement of most non-monetary benefits with increased cash compensation and profit sharing. It was the first item, however, that captured the internet’s attention. The next day, The Verge published an article based on employee leaks detailing the original ‘list of names’ discussion that precipitated the changes. The day after that, DHH published a blog post sharing his own version of events.

This is all complicated and messy enough that I’m not going to get into the details or try to evaluate who is in the right — if you care you can read the various accounts and decide how you feel about it. Depending on who you talk to, the moratorium on internal political debate is either 1) evidence of tyrannical founders quashing employee agency the moment they’re made to feel uncomfortable; 2) a welcome reprieve from unhelpful and divisive histrionics; or 3) something in between.

As part of the changes, employees were offered a generous severance package. From DHH’s post:

Yesterday, we offered everyone at Basecamp an option of a severance package worth up to six months salary for those who’ve been with the company over three years, and three months salary for those at the company less than that. No hard feelings, no questions asked. For those who cannot see a future at Basecamp under this new direction, we’ll help them in every which way we can to land somewhere else.

Casey Newton at Platform reports that at least 20 of Basecamp’s 57 employees took the money and quit. Some commentators took this as evidence of widespread employee dissatisfaction which certainly seems to have existed at some level. I am curious, though, what percentage of employees at other companies might jump at the chance for a six-month paid vacation regardless of their job satisfaction.

Despite the general drama flavor (and it is mostly drama at the end of the day) there are two things I want to highlight. The first is the tie-in with Coinbase, who made a similar controversial policy change in late 2020 to limit discussion of political issues at work. In an industry where big companies have tolerated or even promoted activism amongst their employees, we’ll have to see if this sort of stance becomes a common alternative.

The second is a relevant quality of Basecamp that I think has mostly been overlooked. Some of the original internal discussion (and much of the ensuing controversy) was related to employee diversity and inclusion. Jason and DHH have both been vocal supporters of increasing Basecamp’s diversity in the past, so those who saw their actions as exclusionary also found them hypocritical. Again, I don’t want to litigate the specific events in question but I was surprised to find few mentions of Basecamp’s history of remote work in discussions of the issue.

Basecamp has championed remote work for years and published an entire book on it back in 2013. Even before the pandemic, their attitudes paved the way for other remote-friendly companies like Stripe. Despite all the diversity initiatives across the tech industry (and especially at big companies), precious little time is paid to the limiting effects of geography. There is undoubtedly a bias to the distribution of people living in $coastal_metro_area. If your goal is really for your workforce to represent your national or international customer base then overcoming that geographic selection bias is a necessary hurdle to clear. In that arena, at least, Basecamp has a strong history of leading the way.


Hologram calls are here. Replit CEO bullies an ex-intern. Microsoft accidentally applies Chinese censorship to the entire world.

[0] Which is also why I roll my eyes at the founder tweeting at Microsoft asking to buy his company back. Like, you did this! You can’t raise money and hire tons of people and make tens of millions of dollars selling your company and then complain when the acquirer applies the most predictable, cliche strategy to its new asset.

[1] Not that Wunderlist didn’t innovate. It’s abnormal popularity in a saturated field is probably attributable to an excellent UI and novel, useful features like easily syncing your to-dos across devices (remember, this was like 2014).